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Spotlight shining on probation service

Panorama brought the long prophesised failings of the reformed probation service firmly into the public eye

Make no mistake, the spotlight is now glaring brightly down on the newly reorganised probation service more than ever before. The Probation Service, its stakeholders, partners and suppliers need to do more to ensure that risks are being mitigated effectively and that services operate effectively before shortcomings become systemic failures. In this white paper, I detail what I see, as the key challenges and offer possible solutions. As a key supplier to the National Probation Service (NPS), this white paper will also be submitted as part of a set of recommendations for workforce and workload improvements to senior management.

Last month, BBC’s Panorama brought the long prophesised failings of the reformed probation service firmly into the public eye, but probation inspectorate reports have been warning of unsatisfactory practice for two years. With another inspection ongoing across London currently, what fresh concerns will be raised, and what can stakeholders, partners and suppliers do to help improve this most critical of public services?

The most significant issues raised by inspectors and the media have been the overload of cases, the subsequent inability of officers to meet with and suitably supervise their clients, and the lack of meaningful intervention, including community payback, programmes and resettlement.

There are a number of factors contributing to the underperformance of the service, most significantly a lack of funding and resources across the sector and a shortage of staff, both, qualified and experienced, and at entry level. There is an increasing scarcity of qualified and experienced probation staff in the agency worker market and permanent recruitment for newly qualified staff has been similarly limited.

Concurrently, ‘Through the Gate’, the innovation on which the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms were built, and sold, disappointingly seems to have been undermined amid the struggles of the new private providers. One of the more encouraging elements of the privatisation was the promise of a more effective resettlement service and better reintegration of offenders into the community, post custody. Similarly, it seemed that privatisation would open the door to a more holistic approach to offender management, more effective signposting and more impactful referral pathways for offenders with varying needs. ‘Quality and Effectiveness’ reports have found that even in areas with strong partnerships referrals into support services have not provided adequate intervention options for offenders.

As a preferred supplier to both the NPS and some of the Community Rehabilitation Company’s (CRC’s) Red Snapper Group are constantly thinking of ways in which we can support an improved offender management service. So, what can be done to ease the pressure on probation?

With such a scarce supply of frontline, practitioning staff it is time for the probation service to start looking at alternative methods of managing their workforce and workloads.

The Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector need to be more involved in the day to day management of offenders as they are able to provide deeper support in areas such as housing and employment training and education. Multi-agency work needs to be better coordinated and more wide reaching to allow service users with varying needs, such as mental health and drug and alcohol problems, to be better provided for. Similarly to the regional IOM teams in London, the probation service nationwide may want to look at implementing multi-agency teams to improve data and case sharing across services, and employing Service Managers with experience of coordinating multiple work streams.  Otherwise, the probation service need to look towards bringing more of these services in-house and providing a direct network of holistic support.

Rather than the current approach of getting bums onto seats and volume recruitment of frontline staff, the service need to look at improving the quality of work being done. We have seen evidence of this in certain areas, with some success. For example, the North East Division of the NPS recently recruited thirteen agency worker Mentors; former, long serving senior officers, to quickly and effectively upskill their newly qualified staff and Probation Service Officer’s. Quality case review and mentoring of permanent staff can make a huge difference to the quality and efficiency of work being done and save costs on recruitment.

As a preferred supplier we have seen first-hand the difficulty in acquiring trained and experienced programme staff. There simply is not enough available staff to cope with the demand. This means there will be a shift in supply from high volume recruitment of generic officers to lower volume, specialist roles. There are options on the table from benchmarking International qualifications against UK through to “top-up” training for social workers. That said, these are all short-term solutions. Considering the provision of programmes is one of the areas widely identified as requiring improvement, there needs to be a concerted effort to get more officers trained and capable of providing the interventions or engaging organisations who can outsource the requirement.

Here at Red Snapper Group we believe that the future of staffing services is in the development of complimentary managed service provisions, the outsourcing of specific services and functions, managed on an agreed output, with a flexible delivery strategy.  An agile and cost effective compliment to the provision of agency staff.

We have identified areas of the probation service which would suit a managed service provision. With a focus currently on the services inability to deal with non-compliance and non-attendance, offender interviews and OASys assessment could be outsourced to account for those offenders who have not been reached.   RSG is able to provide academy style training programs to part transfer the financial risks of developing a new generation of qualified practitioners creating additional capacity for eventual in-house probation sector responses.

It is a challenging time for criminal justice and it seems we are heading towards a make or break period for the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms but there is still hope for the probation service. Through the inspection reports recommendations for improvement can be made and acted on, through open and honest discussion across the sector we can work around the challenges we face and come up with innovative ideas to improve the quality of service provided.

All this said, long-term, we must work collectively to attract more and better skills into this profession across all skill sets from frontline probation staff to offender management and service delivery. The NPS and CRC’s are crucial to this. We try to do as much as we can by providing free training to those who left the service some time ago and wish to go back. In addition, we have a constant stream of positive marketing material promoting the profession and have recently begun to present probation career pathways to students on appropriate degree courses across the UK.